Friday, October 4, 2013

A Real American Hero (1978)


          The colorful crime-fighting career of real-life Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser had already inspired three installments of the Walking Tall film series before this unrelated take on Pusser’s life was made for the small screen, and in fact a second small-screen spin on Pusser, the TV series Walking Tall, was to follow in 1981. Plus, to make things even more complicated, the Pusser role was originated by Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall (1973) and then played by Bo Svenson in every other ’70s/’80s iteration except for this TV movie, which stars Brian Dennehy. Anyway, although Dennehy is by far the best actor associated with the various Pusser projects—his talents so greatly dwarf those of Baker and Svenson that any comparison between the players is ridiculous—A Real American Hero is as generic as its title. The picture starts out in standard Walking Tall fashion, with Pusser reacting to a drunk-driving tragedy by taking his signature wooden club into a bar that sells moonshine and trashing the joint. Then, as the picture grinds through familiar chapters of Pusser’s life—frustration at the way the legal system protects criminals, followed by imaginative use of arcane laws to beat the crooks at their own game—A Real American Hero becomes monotonous.
          Dennehy is formidable during action scenes, whether he’s intimidating suspects or pummeling opponents, but the filmmakers provide such limp material during non-action scenes that vignettes of Pusser’s home life are boring. It doesn’t help that the picture’s main villain, Danny Boy Mitchell (Ken Howard), is an unimaginative stand-in for the various organized-crime forces that preyed upon the real Pusser’s beloved McNairy County. Danny Boy is a cocky thug with a seemingly endless supply of henchmen and lawyers, but he never seems like a legitimate threat to Pusser because he’s not connected to a larger criminal enterprise. Weirdly, the makers of A Real American Hero entered Pusser’s story after the death of his wife—an alleged murder that drove the man to step up his anti-crime crusade—so there’s a sizable subplot involving Pusser’s friendship with a former hooker, Carrie Todd (Sheree North). This generates several scenes in which Pusser stands up for Carrie’s right to re-enter polite society, a story thread that seems unnecessarily off-topic for a brief movie that runs about 90 minutes. (There’s also some blah comic-relief material with Forrest Tucker as Pusser’s pa.) Still, Dennehy’s innate charisma and the utterly believable way he incarnates righteous indignation snaps A Real American Hero back into focus whenever Dennehy gets his teeth into a meaty scene, and the final shoot-out is exciting.

A Real American Hero: FUNKY

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